Horror movies are rarely critics’ darlings, but James Wan’s The Conjuring is scoring the strongest reviews of any wide release this weekend, and looks set to beat the far costlier RED 2 and R.I.P.D. at the box office as well. Studios tend to screen horror movies late if at all, but Warner Brothers has been showing The Conjuring to audiences for weeks, and a single packed screening will tell you why. One of the pleasures of watching The Conjuring — and there are many — is hearing a crowd’s emotions manipulated with the skill of a concert pianist, feeling the wave of fright run through the room like an electric current.
The Conjuring, which is putatively based on the true story of ghost hunters Ed and Lorraine Warren — based known for their “investigation” of the case behind The Amityville Horror — is set in the early 1970s, and it might have been made then as well. Although there are a few CGI flourishes, the film’s biggest scares are accomplished with practical effects, including a pair of ghostly hands that emerge from the darkness like the human candelabra in Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast. Wan, who’s never shown anything like the masterful technical command he displays here, nailed down an impressively talented cast for what amounts to a simple haunted-house movie, with Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga as the Warrens and Ron Livingston and Lili Taylor as a blue-collar couple who find the decaying house they’ve just moved into populated by malevolent spirits. It almost feels like gilding the lily: All you need is people who can look scared when things go “Boo,” right? But Taylor especially grounds the film as a mother whose desire to protect her daughters makes her especially vulnerable to the spirits’ evil influence — it’s her best role, and her best performance, since her stint on Six Feet Under. (Farmiga, incidentally, did the same in Orphan, which is one of her best, and most overlooked roles.)
The pleasures of Larry Fessenden’s movies tend to be more conceptual than technical, but he’s a master of brainy, low-budget horror, and, through his Glass Eye Pix, a mentor to rising talents like Ti West and Jim Mickle. Beneath, which is now available on demand and playing in a handful of theaters, suffers for being the first of Fessenden’s features not to be based on his own screenplay: It’s a Chiller TV cheapie, from a script by a pair of writers whose only previous credit is called Flu Bird Horror. The premise — five just-graduated high school seniors stuck in a leaky rowboat menaced by a prehistoric, flesh-hungry fish — is solid enough: Piranha meets Lifeboat. But the dialogue is painfully flat and the conflicts between the characters as it becomes clear that only some of them will make to shore alive seem to come out of nowhere. Fessenden’s best movies, like Habit and Wendigo, are driven by character, and Beneath doesn’t have any. But Fessenden is canny enough to turn the film’s weakness into a strength; at a certain point, you realize you’re not meant to be rooting for these grating, narcissistic characters to survive. At best, you’re neutral, and towards the end, you might be rooting for the fish.